Here’s the Secret to Getting Super Tender Meat Every Time You Grill

Brining is a great strategy for keeping lean meats moist. But does that mean you should brine everything before it hits the grill?

Grilled chicken fillet on wooden cutting boardMaraZe/Shutterstock

For years, I avoided grilling chicken breasts at every backyard barbecue. No matter what I did, they always turned out overcooked or undercooked (which was pretty embarrassing either way). Then, I learned the secret to getting super tender meat every time on the grill: brining! It might just be the game-changer you need for your summer grilling season.

How does it work?

Brining works in two ways. First, the salt alters the protein structures inside the meat. It basically allows the cells to retain more moisture, effectively trapping water inside. When you cook the meat, some of that moisture evaporates but most of it remains. The brine also breaks down meat’s tough muscle fibers, preventing them from tightening up as they cook. These loose fibers are less likely to squeeze out water, so the meat stays nice and juicy.

What’s the secret recipe?

We might have a few marinade secrets up our sleeve, but brining is a no-recipe-required kind of event. Simply combine one tablespoon of salt for every cup of water. You’ll need enough water to completely cover the meat; usually, four cups of water (and 1/4 cup of salt) will do the trick.

Can you over brine?

If you leave meat in the brine too long, it can definitely get too salty. Sometimes, you can fix it by soaking the meat in cold water to draw out the excess salt, but it doesn’t always work. If you really brine it for too long (as in, days too long), you can cause excess protein denaturing and make the meat mushy—and there’s no fixing that!

A good rule of thumb is to brine super-thin fish fillets for ten minutes. Seafood like shrimp and thin cuts of pork or poultry (like chops or chicken breasts) usually take 15 to 30 minutes. Larger cuts like whole chicken can brine overnight, and very large turkeys can sit as long as 48 hours.

What meats should you brine?

Any lean cut of meat will benefit from brining—especially chicken breasts, pork chops, pork tenderloin, shrimp, or fish. These types of meat don’t have a lot of intermuscular fat (or marbling) to keep them from drying out as they cook. The brine will all but guarantee you won’t end up with a chewy piece of dry meat!

Are there meats you shouldn’t brine?

Never brine a kosher, self-basting, or enhanced turkey—these types of turkeys are already treated with salt, so brining them could render them inedible. It’s not necessary to brine fattier cuts of pork or poultry, like the belly meat or chicken thighs, but it also won’t hurt. When it comes to red meats like beef or lamb, you’re better off using a dry-brining method and salting them directly. These cuts are so full flavored on their own, they can take the direct seasoning better than the lean stuff. This method does work for both expensive and cheaper cuts of the meat you’ve chosen, however. In fact, brining is even listed as one of the 13 tricks to make cheaper cuts of meat taste more expensive.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and a food writer. After graduating from Cascade Culinary school, Lindsay became the Executive Chef at Jackson's Corner in Bend, OR, from 2013 to 2016. Her genuine passion for food and sustainable food practices led her to find the farmer in herself. She lives in Durango, CO, where she enjoys the trials and errors of small plot farming. Lindsay is currently working on a cookbook that teaches home cooks how to craft beautiful meals without a recipe, tentatively titled "The Art of Bricolage: Cultivating Confidence and Creativity in the Kitchen."